by Maximilian Schreder
The Autobiography as told to Alex Haley
When Malcolm X was murdered in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on February 21, 1965, he was world-famous as the angriest black man in America. By that time he had completed his autobiography, so we have now the opportunity to get information of this both hated and loved Afro-American leader’s life at first hand. The book The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which he wrote with the assistance of Alex Haley, was first published in 1965.
The Two Authors
Malcolm X did not write his autobiography on his own, but he told his life to the journalist and novelist Alex Haley. Haley had already interviewed Malcolm X for the Playboy magazine. Later, he asked him if he would tell his life story for publication. Malcolm accepted.
Malcolm Little was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. The son of Louise and Earl Little. Louise Little was a mulatto born in Grenada in the British West Indies and Earl Little, a six-foot, very dark skinned man from Reynolds, Georgia, was a Baptist minister and organiser for Marcus Garvey, who wanted that all Afro-Americans go back to the land of their ancestors, Africa. Louise, his second wife, bore six children: Wilfred, Hilda, Philbert, Malcolm, Yvonne, and Reginald. Earl Little also had three children by a first wife: Ella, Earl, and Mary. Because of the father’s advocacy for Garvey’s movement, the whole family was terrorised by the Ku Klux Klan. To avoid any more harassment by these white racists, Little had to migrate with his family to Lansing, Michigan. It did not help. The white racists of Lansing killed Malcolm’s father by laying him on a railway track, claiming he committed suicide. Alone and without money, Louise Little got more and more desperate, till the white authorities sent her to a mental hospital.
Malcolm attended school until eighth grade living with different families. When his teacher stopped him from trying to become a lawyer, he dropped out of school and went to his older half sister, Ella, who lived in Boston. There, he took a job as a shoeshine boy at the Roseland Ballroom. A career as a hustler seemed a more tempting option, and he was soon peddling narcotics. He met a white girl called Sophia who quickly became his girlfriend. Having a white girl and being a very good dancer, he soon was a notorious young man with crazy clothes and a haircut made to resemble the hair of white people, which he was very ashamed of later.
But Roxbury proved to be too small for him, and in 1942 he took a job as a railroad dining-car porter, working out of Roxbury and New York. Settling in Harlem, New York, he became more and more involved in criminal activities. He robbed, worked as a pimp, and sold narcotics.
Malcolm soon learned to survive in the hustler society, which was constantly threatened by internal wars that could render every man your enemy. In Harlem he also got his nickname Detroit Red, because his home town Lansing was close to Detroit and his hair was red. After a year in Harlem, Malcolm was officially initiated into hustler society. He returned to Boston in 1945 after falling out with another hustler, and continued a life of crime, forming his own house robbing gang. Arrested for robbery in February 1946, he was convicted and sentenced to prison for seven years.
While in prison, Malcolm became a follower of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of a small black cult, the Nation of Islam, with branches in Detroit, Chicago and New York. Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad corresponded by mail. Malcolm’s brothers Philbert and Reginald, visiting him in prison, urged him to join Muhammad’s cult, and while still in prison he did. He discarded his slave name, Little, and took the new name X. He improved his poor knowledge by reading an encyclopaedia and studied plenty of books as well as the Koran and followed strictly the Nation of Islam’s dietary laws and moral codes.
After his parole in 1952, Malcolm X undertook organisational work for the Nation of Islam under the guidance of Elijah Muhammad. Minister Malcolm X founded mosques in Boston, Philadelphia, Harlem and elsewhere and made the national expansion of the movement possible, so that the membership reached approximately 30’000 in 1963. Malcolm X’ vision was expressed in speeches, a newspaper column as well as radio and television interviews. In addition, he helped to found the Black Muslim newspaper Muhammad Speaks. Minister Malcolm X was said to be the only Negro who could stop a race riot — or start one. In January 1958 he married Betty X, who was also a member of the Nation of Islam.
Because of his success, other Ministers of the Nation of Islam grew jealous. Elijah Muhammad also began to be afraid of his best Minister who proved to be more famous than he himself. So, partly because of these tensions within the Black Muslim movement, Malcolm became critical of Elijah Muhammad. He was eventually silenced for 90 days after commenting on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy with the phrase chickens come home to roost. But before his silence was lifted, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam to form the Muslim Mosque, Inc. on March 1964. He began to advocate a more pragmatic black nationalism and said that blacks should control the politics within their own community and, through his speeches, encouraged his followers to make changes by voting.
At the height of his power Malcolm X was one of black America’s most powerful voices. He had enormous influence among black youth and in progressive intellectual circles. He travelled widely in Europe and Africa and established his Organisation of Afro-American Unity. He saw the black American struggle partly as a segment of the efforts of third world nations for human rights.
In 1964, Malcolm X went on his pilgrimage to Mecca, which is obligatory for orthodox Muslims, and there he began to consider changing his views towards integration. In Mecca, he saw that it was possible for black and white people to live in brotherhood, of which he was deeply touched. After the pilgrimage he adopted the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
The angry members of the Nation of Islam began to threaten to kill him. His home in Queens, New York, which Malcolm X shared with his wife and his six children was firebombed in early February 1965. When Malcolm X was delivering a speech in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on February 21, 1965, he was shot down by Black Muslims.
No matter if you agree with Malcolm X’ opinions, his autobiography is worth reading.
One thing of Malcolm X’ personality I really honour is his readiness to revise his ideas and change them. Especially in the fields of politics and religion, both of which he was working in, people usually never change their beliefs and policies, even if they are proved to be wrong. But Malcolm X was different. He turned all his beliefs and his way of life upside down when joining the nation of Islam. He stopped drinking, smoking and abusing drugs instantly and dedicated his life to his leader, whereas he had been selfish and greedy his whole life before. Tragically, he trusted Elijah Muhammad too much. All in all it’s a great book.